A singular man: the rise and rise of The Fall
There's a great John Peel quote about his favourite band of all time. "They're always different; they're always the same," is how the late, great tastemaker famously summed up the sprawling oeuvre of The Fall. The legendary Mancunian post-punk band have just released their 28th studio album entitled Your Future Our Clutter. Next Thursday, Mark E Smith will be on a Dublin stage snarling "Good evening, we are The Fall".
Formed in 1976 and taking their name from an Albert Camus novel, the sole constant member of the band has been Smith. The gnarly frontman was recently deemed to be the number one musical cult hero of all time by NME, a publication enjoying something of a renaissance with the appointment of their first female editor Krissi Murison.
Bluntly describing himself as "northern white crap that talks back", Smith is one of the most eccentric and colourful characters in rock. Operating something of a hire 'em and fire 'em policy, The Fall have boasted a staggering cast of at least 40 members, including a short stint by Gavin Friday. Smith sees this constant turnover of personnel as completely normal.
"My grandfather used to stand outside the local prison and hire lads who were coming out to work in his mill," he once explained. "That's kind of how I recruit musicians. It's like, 'You're on bass, so get cracking'."
The Fall's career has been pockmarked with frequent fisticuffs in a peculiar world of acrimony, controversy and uncertainty that's unique to them alone. In summer 2006, they spectacularly broke up on an American tour after only four dates. The spat culminated in Smith fighting with two other members and spending the night in a police cell in New York.
Last year, Smith performed a London gig from a wheelchair, before abandoning the stage to sing from the dressing room. That said, the show took place on April 1.
Since the implosion of 2006, The Fall are an entirely new band, apart from Elena Palou, who has since become Smith's wife, and of course, Smith himself. In typically hyper-prolific style, they've managed to churn out three studio albums since then.
The latest addition to the vast canon is their first for UK-based label Domino Records, one of the longest running and most illustrious independent imprints in the world.
The lead single, entitled 'Bury Pts 1-3', is a bona fide Fall classic -- a surreal slice of abrasive post-punk rock. It's only representative of the album in the sense that it's very weird and very wonderful. The last track on the album, 'Weather Report', concludes with Smith whispering: "You don't deserve rock 'n' roll."
It's hard to know where to start with strange Smith lyrics. On 'Two Librans' (from The Unutterable, 2000) he mysteriously intoned, "Oprah Winfrey, she studied bees." On 'City Hobgoblins' (from Grotesque (After the Gramme), 1980), he speaks/sings in his own inimitable way: "Our city hobgoblins /They'll get yer / So Queen Victoria / Is a large black slug in Piccadilly, Manchester."
Influenced by Thomas Pynchon, Smith's lyrical persona mirrors his chaotic life. Renegade -- The Lives and Tales of Mark E Smith documents his story in his own hilarious words. "I hope this becomes a Mein Kampf for the Hollyoaks' generation," he dangerously jokes.
It's full of golden quotes and laugh-out-loud moments, as Smith takes playful pot shots at the "Beckham generation", modern music, Bob Geldof, Noel Gallagher and political correctness. "I really can't stand it when blokes feel the need to comment on your drinking habits," he blasts.
"It's rampant, all that malarkey: New Labour trying to keep people alive forever. I don't see them berating the royals or the backbenchers about having a cig or a large gin at three o'clock in the afternoon. It's common knowledge that some doctors are the worst degenerates in existence."
Even though the earliest incarnation of The Fall was born of a legendary Sex Pistols show in Manchester's Free Trade Hall that was famously eulogised by the late Tony Wilson, Smith considered punk to be something of a conformist straitjacket. "The Fall didn't go in much for style," writes Simon Reynolds in the riveting Rip It Up and Start Again -- Post Punk 1978-1984.
"Scrawny, lank-haired and typically wearing a scruffy pullover of indeterminate hue, Smith looked like a grown-up version of the runty school kid in Kes, Ken Loach's 1969 film. But The Fall were mad for the other three escape routes -- literature, music and illegal substances."
While Smith is often portrayed as a crazed and demented curmudgeon, his friend and one-time collaborator Gavin Friday recently revealed: "Mark has a soft and romantic side to him."
Years ago, Smith is said to have been walking down a street in Salford and came across a little girl crying. He asked her what was wrong and she told him that she'd lost her teddy bear. "Don't worry. He's gone touring with a rock band," Mark said to comfort the child.
The little girl cheered up and regularly received a postcard from Mark E Bear from a variety of locations all over the world. Smith continued this until she was 28.
While The Fall are broadly lumped in with post-punk, they really are one of the most singular bands the world has ever produced. "I've never aligned myself to the whole punk thing," Smith once revealed. "To me, punk is and was a quick statement. I wanted something with a bit more longevity."
All these years and 28 albums later, he's certainly succeeded, becoming a primary influence on Pavement, LCD Soundsytem, Franz Ferdinand and too many to mention in the meantime. The Fall truly are a band apart. They're always different; they're always the same.
Your Future Our Clutter is released on Domino. The Fall play TriPod, Dublin, next Thursday. They also appear in May at the festivals All Tomorrow's Parties (UK) and Primavera Sound, Barcelona.